Opesource Computing

Opensource computing

Is it possible to run a business purely using free software?.

Your average business IT vendor will tell you that a business needs a server running 'Microsoft Server 2xxx', with clients running Windows XP Pro, or Windows 7 Pro, and, by the way, don't forget MS Office, MS Exchange and various other pieces of commercial software in order to make your business run smoothly.

I dissagree with this. I believe that it should be possable to run a company (no matter how large) using free and opensource software solutions.

Any company network usually consists of at least one server and several clients. With tasks ranging from accounts through to CAD, sales and HR. So, is it possable to find free or opensource programs to cover all the requirements of a large establishment?. Well, in a word, yes. How about a server running Linux?. 'Expensive, complicated and hard to get to grips with'. That's the view proffered by most vendors, however the truth is far from this. There are several Linux distros purpose-made to install a fully-working server complete with web-browser based administration. The main one being 'Red Hat Enterprise Server', although this can be bought as a commercial package complete with technical support, it can be downloaded and built yourself, or if you don't fancy this, then 'BSEL (Business Server Enterprise Linux)' may be more to your liking. For those in education, there is 'Karoshi', a fully-featured single/multi-server distro built by Paul Sharrad and Jo Harris from their experiance from working within the IT department of a large school. Like BSEL, it is built on PCLinuxOS 2009, which is extremely quick. Using custom Linux distros has the advantage that someone has already done the hard work, leaving you to download the .iso image, burn it to disc, and install it on the server.

Linux Servers can connect Windows clients as well as Linux ones. But as we are concentrating on free and opensource, we will concentrate on linux for the clients as well. There are probably more than 50 distros to choose from, but the main 'aimed-at-business' distros tend to be SUSE (owned by Novell), Red Hat, Mandriva and PCLinuxOS2009 (a faster build of Mandriva). Any Linux distro can be used as a client (or, for the more experianced user, server as well) as all distros work the same underneath. Basically, they may use their own methods for installation or desktop gui's, but underneath the interface everything is the same. My preferences are for PCLinuxOS2009, as it is easier to install than Windows, and, with no licence fees to pay, much cheaper to boot.

With both the server and client sorted-out, what about the day-to-day software that is essential to a company?. Lets start with office suites. Most companies use MS Office in one of it's various guises, but there is an alternative. Openoffice. this is now the defacto standard office suite for many goverment departments across the globe, from the 'Department for homeland security' in the USA, to the entire Thai goverment. Openoffice consists of 'Writer' (same as 'Word', 'Calc' (excel), 'Base' (Access), 'Impress' (powerpoint), 'Math' and 'Draw'. Openoffice has no MS Publisher support, but it can export a document as a pdf without the need for an external program. Also, the odf format used is accessable to over 140 other programs, so it is truly a file format for the future. It is also  worth mentioning that the 'Base' module can access many differant database formats, and can even edit Thunderbird adress books.

For the accounts department, there is 'GnU Cash', and it's point-of-sale add-on 'GnuPOS'. Gnucash is fully-functional double-entry accounting program capable of handling multiple accounts and multiple currencies. It's GnuPOS add-on allows multi-site sales control, with full inventory database and ability to automatically update a central accounting system make it a program on par with the most advance electronic point of sale systems. Gnu POS can also be used for stock control within the stores department.

For the production of brochures and magazines, there is 'Scribus', designed from the ground up to be a serious DTP program, Scribus is now capable-enough for one magazine to use it to typeset one issue to see how it compared with their normal Quarkexpress layout. The result was exactly the same. However, it does differ significantly from Quark in its use so will require a good deal of hands-on use to get the most out of it.

The drawing and design department is easily catered for with LinuxCAD, a full-on 2d/3d CAD application. It can be used for designing anything from engines to houses. I have not used this program myself, but according to those that have, it behaves just like AutoCAD and Radan.

Need to work on a collaborative project?, 'openproj' fits the bill. With versions for all the major operating systems, even Windows users can work on a project with their Linux counterparts.

Other useful programs include 'Asterisk' is a PBX & Telephony system aimed at putting your communications on to your network.

As you can see, it IS possable to run an entire business using open source software. Microsoft ran a campaign a year or two back pointing-out the total cost of ownership of their systems against those powered by Linux. According to them, theirs was by far the chaepest. I would argue that with all the free technical assistance now available on the web, operating an open source system must surely be less than 10% of the TCO of an MS based one. After all, you pay nothing for the O/S, and the software is free as well. If the total cost per seat is £0.00, then by definition, it must be cheaper.

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